On World Press Freedom Day, ITN chief executive John Hardie warns of the threats to investigative journalism
In this post-truth era of fake news and social media echo chambers, the role of public service journalism in unearthing the facts, challenging opinion and holding power to account has seldom been more important.
Yet, at the same time, the media industry faces a troubling regulatory environment, with a rising tide of legislative measures seeking to curtail long-enshrined journalistic protections, often in the name of national security.
Having marked World Press Freedom Day this week, it is significant that the UK has dropped several places on the press freedom index to number 40. This means that the UK’s journalists are apparently less free to hold power to account than those working in South Africa, Chile or Ghana.
Free speech campaigner Reporters Without Borders has said western democracies are rapidly approaching a “tipping point” for media freedom. Indeed, it’s easy to see why journalists can feel clouds gathering on the horizon, as government interests pivot from freedom of expression to enhanced security measures and the control of information.
The Investigatory Powers Act 2016 – the so-called ‘Snooper’s Charter’ – has bestowed unprecedented surveillance powers on police, who can now access communications data and potentially identify sources without having to notify media organisations or journalists.
There have been attempts – so far unsuccessful – to restrict the journalistic use of the Freedom of Information Act by reinforcing the ability to veto requests from the media. This poses a chilling risk to investigative journalism.
In the latest onslaught, the Law Commission has launched a consultation for an espionage bill, which threatens to criminalise journalists and their sources, treating them like spies.
Journalists publishing public interest stories based on leaked information could serve lengthy prison sentences alongside the whistleblowers with whom they worked.
The proposed law, which would replace four Official Secrets Acts dating back to 1911, would carry a jail term of up to 14 years for leaking official documents and remove any statutory public interest defence for those accused.
It bears repeating here: public interest whistle-blowing is absolutely vital to a healthy democracy. Journalism is not a crime.
Of course, we live in an era where national security is a hugely important consideration for any government. But this must be balanced with the need for freedom of expression.
There’s a real danger now of legislative over-reach and an inappropriate use of power to curtail and repress genuine public service journalism.
Just because a story may reveal an inconvenient truth, it does not mean that it should automatically become subject to legislative measures that turn that “inconvenience” into a “threat”.
This is a new world of Brexit, Trump and the collapse of long-established norms; uncharted territory requiring responsible coverage and clear explanation. Yet at the same time, around the world the media industry is fighting to maintain its position as a trusted, credible source of information.
The rise of fake news strikes at the heart of the democratic process, damaging the public’s ability to differentiate between thorough, fact-checked journalism and that which deliberately seeks to mislead. This is then compounded by online platforms whose algorithms and news-feeds prioritise virality of content over veracity.
High-quality journalism needs both investment and protection so that it can continue to provide a vital service. As digital audiences grow online, there is clearly a huge appetite for news, and the opportunity to engage with larger audiences than ever before is there for the taking. This could still be a golden age for journalism.
John Hardie is chief executive of ITN